ST. LOUIS • By his own admission, he was never the prettiest woman on the stage. There was always a contestant who cut a more attractive figure, who wowed the audiences and the judges with his beauty atop a pair of high heels.
But Michael Shreves knew winning a pageant was not just about beauty. His true strength was in talent, the portion of the contest that he would win every time.
Still, when the final scores were added up each year, he would fall just short. Whatever it was the judges were looking for, he didn't quite have.
For 30 years, Shreves has put on the wigs, the nails, the gowns to entertain as Michelle McCausland. He has become one of the best drag performers in the region, impressing audiences with his wit and impeccable lip-syncing.
Despite the admiration, though, the ultimate reward eluded him: the crown of Miss Gay Missouri America. And aggravating the snub for three decades has been the ribbing from friends in the business.
"Michael has been teased for years. People say: 'Here comes the first runner-up,' " said Daniel Flier, who, as Vanessa Vincent, won the Miss Gay Missouri crown in 1982 and is now one of the owners of the state pageant.
A dozen years ago, Shreves walked away from competing but continued his weekend performances at various gay clubs.
Then, earlier this year, at 53, he decided to give it one last shot. Shreves, an interior designer who lives in south St. Louis County, went into debt hiring a choreographer and backup dancers from Chicago. He wanted the crown too badly to think about money.
"I couldn't just stand there and sing a ballad. I had to pull out all the stops," Shreves said. "If I didn't win after giving it my all, it wasn't meant to be."
Shreves never wanted to be a girl — just to be a part of the sisterhood of winners from the Miss Gay Missouri America pageant, now in its 40th year.
But long before he ever donned a wig, his dream as a young boy in Mount Vernon, Ill., was to make it to Broadway. He did high school musicals then summer stock, including a stint at The Little Theatre on the Square in Sullivan, Mo.
The performance was "Cabaret," which includes an all-girl band.
"Nobody in the company knew how to play piano but me," Shreves said.
So the director told him to dress as a woman.
"It was in the late '70s, early '80s when this kind of thing wasn't really acceptable," said Shreves. "It got in the newspaper. But everyone thought it was the trumpet player who was actually the man."
Later that year, he dressed in drag for a Halloween party at a Carbondale, Ill., bar.
The bar owner and the DJ got into a fight that night, and the DJ quit. Shreves volunteered to fill in. The bar owner was happy with the results, asking Shreves to consider moving to Carbondale to DJ full time.
"I've got one stipulation," Shreves recalls the bar owner telling him. "I want you to do it in drag."
As a DJ, Shreves began going onto the dance floor and lip-syncing, the first time to a disco version of "Singin' in the Rain."
"People started bringing me dollars," Shreves said.
Eventually, Shreves got booked at Faces, a now-closed nightclub in East St. Louis known for its drag shows. But he needed a drag name. Michael is similar to Michelle. To complete his stage name, he thought of the most beautiful girl in his high school. Her last name was Macaslin. He would be Michelle Macaslin. But when he took to the stage, the announcers kept calling him Michelle McCausland, assuming he had used the St. Louis street as inspiration. Eventually, the name stuck.
Not long into defining himself as a female impersonator, Shreves found himself in a legal tangle for dressing in drag.
He and other performers at a gay bar in St. Louis were arrested in January 1984 during a police raid. Shreves was charged with violating a city ordinance that made it unlawful to cross dress.
He and another performer challenged in court, prompting a federal judge to deem the cross-dressing law unconstitutional.
Becoming an activist was not the kind of attention Shreves hoped to get from dressing in a wig and dress. Media accounts of his legal fight referred to him as a female impersonator.
But he wanted to be the female impersonator.
'I LOST BY SIX POINTS'
Shreves came close to the Miss Gay Missouri America crown in 1988, when he was named first runner-up.
"Six points. I lost by six points," he said of a contest where a perfect score totals 3,750. "The little things will screw you up."
Shreves tells the story of how the ultimate winner had "totally the wrong shoes for her evening gown." Shreves knew a pair he had with him would be perfect for his opponent.
"I said, 'girl, put these shoes on,' " he recalled.
Shreves soon realized he had not only given away his shoes, but, most likely, his crown.
"I wasn't mad. But my heart was crushed. My eyes were welling up. They are now," Shreves said, as he took off his glasses to dab at tears.
Standing with his bouquet of first-runner-up flowers, he recalled, "I walked backward off the stage and wrapped myself in a curtain so the audience couldn't see me cry. I stayed in the curtain until everybody was gone."
The pain in his voice from something that happened 24 years ago helps explain why he decided to give his all one last time.
Earlier this year, he easily made it through a preliminary pageant, something he'd done a dozen times before, but he knew the hard work was before him at the state level. He'd been out of competition for more than a decade. He'd have to turn heads in a crowd of younger and fitter contestants.
For two months, he drove to Chicago every Sunday to work with a choreographer, who set Shreves up with six professional dancers, four men and two women, to perform the Broadway song "Anything Goes." It was a hit with the crowd at the state competition earlier this year at a Columbia bar where the 2012 Miss Gay Missouri America contest was held.
But scores in other categories such as an interview (out of drag) and evening gown also are weighed in the overall results.
As Shreves stood in the Top 10 this year, the announcer began naming the five finalists. When it got to first runner-up, he expected to hear "Michelle McCausland." Shreves looked at the remaining contestants and thought: "Surely, I didn't finish out of the Top 5."
He did not.
The crown was finally his. His coronation song, Whitney Houston's "One Moment In Time," began playing.
"I couldn't sing it. I cried most of the time," he said.
It would be one of the rare times Michelle McCausland did not lip-sync perfectly.
Sunday night, Shreves begins his formal reign as the 2012 Miss Gay Missouri America, appearing at the first preliminary contest. He will perform and sit with the judges "to make sure everything is legitimate."
And he will keep performing each Friday and Saturday night at Meyer's Grove on Manchester Avenue, honing his skills as he prepares for the national Miss Gay America pageant in October, to be held in Ohio.
Shreves said he will never get tired of putting on the crown, which he stores in a fur-lined box.
"When you want something for 30 years and get it and never thought you would, it's amazing."
PATH TO THE CROWN
Miss Gay Metropolitan, the state's first preliminary pageant to qualify for the 2013 Miss Gay Missouri America crown, will be held Sunday, at Attitudes Nightclub, 4100 Manchester Avenue, St. Louis
When • Performers take the stage at 9 p.m. Admission is $8.